When the rapidly deteriorating political discourse and culture of public debate affect even our prime minister, and he fails to resist the temptations of utterances not in tune with the grace of his position, there are reasons to be worried.
Yes, the ongoing project of bashing Nehru – archetypal of the Hindutva discourse of cultural nationalism – acquired yet another dimension when Modi made a sarcastic comment: “Nehru wore a rose on his suit, but was ignorant of farmers’ woes; he had knowledge of gardens, but not farmers and farming.”
While it is possible to debate whether the nation-building project that Nehru initiated, with its emphasis on an interventionist state – seeking to modernise and industrialise a ‘traditional’ country like ours – has somehow disempowered the village economy and undermined the agrarian sector’s potential.
Such an exercise requires cogitation coupled with an enriched culture of debate on the economy and development. However, here, too, Modi seems to be in a hurry.
His comment indicates how vitriolic rhetoric has replaced the delicacy of a debate; it demonstrates, once again, that the Sambit Patras of the world (representing what the arrogance of power can do to a person) do not exist in isolation. They derive inspiration from a leader who could see nothing more in Nehru than his rose as a fashion statement. Words are ugly, gestures are violent and oratory is toxic.
Nonetheless, Modi may know some things. He knows economics (forget demonetisation), he knows politics (forget the Gujarat riots), he knows education (children, for him, are ‘exam warriors’) and he knows the pain of the subaltern and the pain of tea vendors (forget the fancy clothes he wears).
And possibly, the ‘elitist’ Nehru with his ‘Harrow’ and ‘Cambridge’ was ignorant of many things: say, how to build a temple at Ayodhya, how to rediscover Anil Ambani as a great educationalist and how to promote mob lynching and cow vigilantism as a token of respect to Bharat Mata.
Yet, Nehru knew something profound that the likes of Modi, I am afraid, would not be able to comprehend.
The cosmopolitan Nehru
First, Nehru had a deep sense of history. If Modi manages to get some time to read The Discovery of India, he would realise what it meant for a modernist to engage so deeply and meaningfully with an old civilisation. He was a wanderer, and his reflexive quest brought a great degree of elasticity in his mind. He loved the flow of this civilisation, yet he was determined to embrace the new age.
No wonder, the ethos of cultural syncretism or a spirit of dialogue characterised his worldview (he loved Buddha, and he adored modern science; he read Marx, yet the Bhagavadgita was a fascinating text; he was impressed by Lenin, yet Gandhi was irresistible). His secularism was not ignorant of the depths of the Upanishadic prayers, or the beauty of cross-religious dialogue in the evolution of Indian civilisation.
Second, Nehru knew the art of dissent. No, he was not for stigmatising or scandalising his opponents. He debated, discussed and differed – with grace and civility. Would Modi find some time to read his autobiography? A careful reader would find that Nehru was not always easygoing with Gandhi – the man he otherwise admired.
The postulates of Hind Swaraj, Nehru wrote, didn’t have much appeal to him. Possibly, Nehru’s vision of industrial development and urbanity as a mode of life were not in conformity with Gandhi’s maxims. Yet, this philosophical difference never allowed a toxic culture of doubt, suspicion and stigmatisation to fester.
Nehru, even when he was the most charismatic prime minister, respected his ideological opponents; he debated with them; he didn’t want to ‘finish’ them. He knew the ethics of civility in discussion.
And third, Nehru loved the fascinating world of ideas – the ideas and innovations that shaped and transformed the world. The Glimpses of World History indicates this. Not surprisingly, artists and scientists, filmmakers and philosophers – the world of the intelligentsia was dear to his heart.
He didn’t condemn them or fear them. For the growth of ideas, he realised the worth of publicly-funded institutions – universities, research centres and institutes of technology. In a way, he saw beyond parochialism; he sought to transcend the boundaries of dogma and faith. It is almost impossible to separate him from the spirit of cosmopolitanism.
Meanness and celebration of decadence
Does Modi know this? Or is it that he doesn’t want to know?
After all, the ideology that nurtured him – the ideology of totalitarian Hindu nationalism as developed by the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar – seeks to eliminate all these three lessons of Nehru: a pluralist vision of India, civility in public debate and vibrant intellectual traditions.
Instead, it fears pluralism in the name of a homogenised politico-cultural package, it abhors civility because its inherent violence (from the assassination of Gandhi to the temple politics) understands only the dictionary of abuses and its sectarian thinking is against the spirit of cosmopolitanism and critical intellectual traditions.
Furthermore, we are also living in a world where ‘republic friendly’ television anchors sell the ugliness of noise, and as consumers of all sorts of entertainment in this age of instantaneity, we – the children of the neoliberal market – have begun to love the melodramatic performance. Political icons deliver catchy dialogues – the way Amitabh Bachchan and Amjad Khan used to in Bollywood blockbusters. The irony is that this disease is infectious, and even Modi’s opponents are not immune to it.
As I conclude, I must add that Nehru was not a magician. His failures, mistakes and contradictions were many, and political theorists and social scientists have written about it. And as Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian phase indicates, the Congress could not do justice to Nehru’s positive legacy either.
What is really frightening, however, is the way the ruling regime is engaged in a pathological exercise of negating the ideas of one of the finest minds in modern India.
Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU